In her 1965 essay, "The Imagination of Disaster," Susan Sontag took a look at
science fiction films and analysed their formulas. The following insight has
stayed with me over the years:
One gets the feeling, particularly in the Japanese films but not only there,
that a mass trauma exists over the use of nuclear weapons and the possibility of
future nuclear wars. Most of the science fiction films bear witness to this
trauma, and, in a way, attempt to exorcise it.
I thought of this over the weekend, during which we watched both
Spider-Man movies. Ms NOLA had recommended them, persuasively, to Kathleen,
and I was so tired of watching uncongenial films that I put up no resistance,
even though I don't go in for superheroes at all. Both films were better than I
thought they'd be, but I still had plenty of cerebral RAM left over for
wondering what anxieties the need for superheroes might express. The appeal of
superheroes is obvious - indeed, that's part of the problem for me - but I could
sense a need for them, too. A need for superheroes to be bodied forth in
film, and for them to confront - what, exactly? What are we afraid of?
I quickly learned not to ask the question in the first person plural. Just as
superheroes are solitary, so are the fans who dream about them, no matter how
many are packed into the same theatre. What am I afraid of? What would I be
afraid of if I were a normally healthy young man with a job that may or may not
have ripened into a career? And I saw at once that what I would be afraid of
would be the power of a superior, at any level, to array himself in all the
resources of a large corporation in order to annihilate me in my utter
defenselessness. There would nothing social in this fear; indeed, the fear would
be intense to the extent that I felt alone, as young men often do and in fact
are. It's important also to see that the villains are individual human beings,
not "corporations." Corporations are fictitious persons, their identities - and
their assets - operated by individual men and women. The corporation is simply a
neutral superpower. It allows someone else to overpower me completely.
I was doubtless helped to these conclusions by the two Spider-Man
pictures, for in both cases the villain is given unchecked access to the
resources of a company run by Norman Osborn. Indeed, Norman Osborn is the first
"victim" of this transformation, which he undergoes in a fit of recklessness
that is even so not malignant. The transformation of Dr Otto Octavius in the
second film is even more dramatic, because, unlike Osborn, Otto is loving and
thoughtful at first. But his experiment misfires, too, putting him under a sort
of portable house arrest. We can fairly say that both men are corrupted when
they connect themselves directly to the corporation's power. Similarly,
real-world corporate power is known to corrupt corporate officers; the Enron
debacle shows what happens when there aren't any superheroes.
Corporate power and authority are wielded with whispers and strokes of pens.
Superhero films dramatize corporate action by telescoping the
power-at-a-distance nature of business and rendering its impact in visually
violent terms. Superhero villains don't really want anything except what all
businesses want: sales and clout. What sets the villains apart isn't so much the
terrible damage that they wreak but their willingness not to play fair.
As regular readers know only too well, I could go on and on. But I think I'll
stop right here, mindful of my unacquaintance with the superhero genre. And on.